The Indian mound, which could be 1,000 years old or older, sits atop a hill behind the Oxford Exchange. Some preservation officials are worried it could contain human remains or burial artifacts. Until recently the city has planned to demolish the hill for fill dirt for a nearby Sam's Club. But work has stopped.
City officials have changed their story about plans for the mound. City Project Manger Fred Denney initially said it would be fill dirt. Now he says he never said it or that he misspoke. Denney's original statements are backed up by two different public documents, including a University of Alabama report commissioned by the city.
Carolyn Chambliss, who says she lives in Tuscany, Italy, founded a Facebook group and cause related to the issue. Facebook is a social networking site connecting friends and acquaintances based on numerous affiliations. The Facebook group is called, "Stop Sacred Burial Mounds from becoming a Sam's Club"; the cause, "Save Sacred Mounds from Destruction/ Boycott Sam's Club."
There are more than 7,000 members between the two groups, formed about one month ago, and the protest is also active on Twitter, another social networking site where people communicate by posting short messages.
Chambliss hopes these "virtual protests" will lead to "a real paradigm shift in Americans' perception of Native Americans." She's also discussed raising money for the preservation of the mound, which she would put into a trust.
"We did a Twitter blast," Chambliss said. "All through the world we blasted Sam's Club and we got immediate results and people started talking about it in Oxford because of this virtual protest."
She said there are several people in the area working with her. Jacksonville resident Laurie Charnigo said she uses the group to stay informed about the mound and other issues that concern American Indians.
"People have been writing letters," she said. "There are thousands of people not in this community writing letters to different organizations and associations and the mayor's office." She said the group is also concerned about other potential historic sites, like the proposed location for Oxford's sports complex, which will include an area known as Davis Farm. Harry Holstein, Jacksonville State University professor of archaeology and anthropology, said the people who constructed the mound likely lived on that site.
Sam's Club, which is owned by Wal-Mart, has responded to the controversy by saying no artifacts from the mound would go into its site. That's true, but that was never at issue. The issue was what would happen to the dirt, something Sam's does not control. The city, through its Commercial Development Authority, owns the hill.
The misunderstanding about who is responsible for the mound bothers Councilman Steven Waits.
"They're speaking about boycotting Sam's," Waits said. "It's really unrelated to Sam's. The issue is about the mound and preserving the mound. They're not utilizing dirt from that mound for the Sam's club."
Councilwoman June Land Reaves had similar concerns and said the story has been an embarrassment to her.
"It's my understanding right now that no dirt is being taken from the mound," she said. "It's being brought from somewhere else, but the damage has been done to a point."
Council president Chris Spurlin and Councilman Phil Gardner were dismissive of Chambliss' efforts, saying there's a possibility most of the members of the group and cause are not who they say they are. Mayor Leon Smith declined to comment for this story.
Can an Internet movement with members who are not from the area have an impact on a local issue? One researcher says it can, if it's done correctly.
Sam Ford is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and helped launch a group called the Convergence Culture Consortium. In short, it researches the effectiveness of social networking sites like Facebook.
"My answer would be these groups absolutely do have the ability to influence, to change outcomes," he said. He called Facebook another avenue for grassroots movements. He noted social networking sites were useful for people trying to communicate in the aftermath of the contentious Iranian elections. He added these groups are not a "silver bullet" to raising awareness or solving problems. With the ease of communications also comes the ease of signing onto a group or cause.
"I think it's interesting the international implications of this particular movement," Ford said. "Here's a local issue with ties into an audience that's geographically dispersed."
Chambliss said the Oxford mound issue fascinates her and other members because of its symbolic importance.
"For me, with Native American heritage, I'm emotionally linked to it," she said. "I feel in a way our ancestors are calling out to us for this big injustice. I feel I've been called across the ocean in Italy."